A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Morrisian Interview Series, #1: Professor Florence S. Boos

Today I have the pleasure of inaugurating my exclusive Morrisian Interview Series, in which I'll be interviewing all manner of influential and fascinating Morrisians.

The first interview is with Florence S. Boos, Professor of Victorian Literature at The University of Iowa. She's often written on the works of Morris (and Rossetti), and she has brought out annotated critical editions of The Socialist Diary, The Earthly Paradise, and The Life and Death of Jason. She's the current President of the Midwest Victorian Studies Association, and Vice President of The William Morris Society in the US. She's also the editor of the forward-looking Morris Online Edition, whose contribution to global Morris related studies cannot be overstated.

Our interview took place in Iowa City one day after Obama's campaign stop there, and the same day as an important football game, so the streets were festive and crowded. We met at lunchtime, but struggled to find a quiet place: at last we settled in the back of a roomy Italian restaurant and began.

Q- I have to ask, is there a specific text or set of texts that first attracted you to nineteenth century literature?

I did always like everything that I read of nineteenth century literature, but I think very important for me was a course that covered Victorian poetry, and we read Tennyson's In Memorium, and some of the other absolutely beautiful poems of the time, on time passing and death. What was appealing about them was their visual quality, of course that is the Pre-Raphaelite quality; and then they are so musical, so metaphysical and so reflective. So, I liked that aspect of the literature, and I still like it—the combination of the musical and the intellectual. Of course one finds this quality from time to time in Victorian fiction, but I do think in the poems of Morris and those of others of his time one finds it very exquisitely.

Later, I read The Defence of Guenevere. I was a very young woman, and it was the 1960s.  It seemed to me explosively sexual, and at the time, that would have been the case because people were re-discovering erotic qualities in literature in a way that would now not be required, because they would seem more commonplace. I still think there's a dramatic intensity in The Defence of Guenevere, and a sincerity, that is unique.

Q- You edited a collection of Morris’s juvenilia in 1982. What prompted your recent return to the subject, with your forthcoming book, Art and Love Enough: The Early Writings of William Morris ?

When I was young, I wanted to write an account of Morris's development that was thorough. I felt that all the one-volume works had not addressed the complexities of his literary works. But what I actually got into print at the time was the segment on The Earthly Paradise, so that incompletion nags at me, and I'm returning to those prior topics. I've written tons of articles on the subject, so it was time to come back and see if there was a greater pattern to it all, and to deal again with the question of to what extent you can find the full development of his thought in his earlier reflections.

And I also want to do that with the later materials, too, so this is section one. If I live long enough, I'll work on the third section. I'd also like to gather together something on the Socialist writings. I was so fortunate as to find almost ten unpublished essays, and that has attracted me again to the subject of how remarkably forceful and well-stated and well-thought-out those essays are. I don't have life enough and time to try for a collected edition of Morris's prose, but that's something that has been granted Carlyle and Arnold and many of the other Victorians, and I think Morris too should should be among them. But what I’m working on are little parts towards a whole.

Q- In Art and Love Enough, you explore the state of mind of William Morris as a young man. He's often characterized as a somewhat confused youth, Romantic and changeful, who only hardened into Socialist vigor in his later years. Is this consistent with what you found in his early texts?

He didn't have a really well-developed complicated political critique of Victorian England, but he did have a fairly well-developed angry critique of certain types of establishment positions. First, he came of a Whig background, and all of his reading in Romantic and medieval literature, as well as history, inclined him towards a certain skepticism about authorities. One of the things I tried to do very briefly in my book, and I would have loved to do more of, was to comment on the politics of all the books he read. He read an enormous amount of history by J.H. Neale, Henry Milman and others who dealt with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Middle Ages and so forth. These were angry books. You would think books on church history would be about as dull as can be, or very pious, but the opposite is the case: these were living issues to the people who were looking back on the middle ages and seeing the huge number of deaths and slaughters and wars that were not necessary, and the effects on the people.

So I think that Morris had good cause in his reading and in his understanding of history to want two things: to separate himself entirely from the powers that be, and to oppose them. You can see in an early poem that he wrote for the Newdigate prize, the very unusual “The Mosque Rising in the Place of the Temple of Solomon”, what I would call a proto-politics. First, the young Morris absolutely refuses to write a Christian poem, which, considering that the prize is about the mosque rising in the place of the temple of Jerusalem, as William Whitla has shown in detail, would certainly have been expected in the context of all sorts of fights in the Middle East—fights that are still going on—over who had control of Jerusalem and the holy places. Morris refuses to hate Muslims, he refuses to glorify the Crusades, which he would have read a lot about, and which he had some occasion to romanticize because he liked Amiens, and Peter the Hermit came from AmiensHe specifically worries about the issue of whether the dead have consciousness, which is not a Christian position; he is horrified, à la Milman, his source, that Christians engaged in mass slaughter, even brutality, killing infants and committing other atrocities. And he is very preoccupied with the building [the temple], the sense of the building as the repository of the good and evil of the world, and the progress of time.

Now, I wouldn't say that's a directly political work, but it encodes a lot of anti-establishment views, and a determination that there are aspects of human life which oppose the destructiveness of the powers that be, on which we should be reflecting. And if you look at his later political writings, you can see he's a much more sophisticated man after he's seen conditions in London, and tried to run his own business, but you can find the same impulses. Although he started out as a left-wing liberal, supporting Gladstone and some of the candidates in the early campaigns, he clearly had a distaste for the whole political process, and all of the various kinds of imperial and other compromises that were made. So, he's a bit intransigent, and indeed many of his followers would not be as clean-cut in their opposition to all levels of capitalism. Thus, it's not that you can look at the early Morris and say, well, this was the bud and we now know what the flower will be, but it's possible to look at his early works and see that this was one way—a very unusual way—that this human being could develop.

Q- In your introduction to the Victorian Poetry special edition, “William Morris: 1896-1996,” you mentioned that a number of Morris's mature poetic qualities were already apparent in his first published book of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere. Among these characteristics, you wrote, was his “need to interpret love and fidelity as political as well as erotic ideals”. Can you talk a little bit about this concept, and how it might have applied to his life as a young man, and to the rest of his life?

One can say that The Defence of Guenevere contained two bodies of medieval material, the Malorian and the Frossartian, a point which has been often made. It's a little harder to deal with the Arthurian material, but Guenevere would have been, in Morris’s interpretation, someone who had been marginalized, or persecuted, in the context of civil society, and he therefore shrinks Arthur and aggrandizes Guenevere and Lancelot, which would have been the Pre-Raphaelite view of romance in general. So he's not only defending love, but he's defending someone who has been marginalized for political reasons.

But the case of the Froissartian poems is much more interesting because it's material that he chose. I try to read Froissart with some tolerance, but the Chronicles are a series of propaganda pieces lauding the British monarch's intrusions into what most of us now consider to be France. And if he was anything like as bloody as is represented, or as capricious, Edward III was not a great leader. However, I think Morris had a complicated view of Froissart and its great dramatic potential because his is a really interesting account at many points. I think Morris took from it the imaginative conception of what it would have been like to be British in France. That's a reasonable stance, because it doesn't matter if you think the British were right or wrong, the point is that people who were ethnically and linguistically English were stuck there. So heroes like Sir Peter are defending a losing cause that nonetheless they consider to be right.

Now, in later life, Morris modified in retrospect his view of the politics of his youth. He revisited the issue of the Crimea, and he actually said, at the time people felt that what they were doing was helping the Crimean situation, but now in hindsight we no longer think that. I assume that was what he thought about France, too, and that he no longer thought that Britain should rule northern France. But when Morris first read Froissart, he identified with those who were trying at a very crucial historical moment to survive, because England did push successfully into France, and then at a certain point, they lost battles and had to retreat. So his heroes are set in that time when one couldn’t know how matters will go, but it's going badly for your side- and that was exactly his situation in later life.

So, all these men such as Sir Peter who are also trying to strive to rejoin their lady Alices, or the speaker of “Concerning Geffray Teste Noire,” or the speakers of the other more historically-based poems such as “The Haystack in the Floods,” are people who are being brutalized by their opponents, and who are struggling to keep their dignity. For instance, in The Little Tower, the speaker says that “it's a joy to ride to my love again”; the point is that his “little tower” is the tower of a very small fief which is going to be destroyed because the main army is advancing. So the speaker is going to die in this little tower. I think when you realize these dramatic situations, you can see a proto-political tone to the resistance of these heroes. … in a moment of existential horror , they have to do something as gallantly or bravely as possible in a situation in which they could well die.

So I would argue that he early adopted a proto-political position. That's not a unique view, because Isobel Armstrong has very powerfully put it forth in her chapter on Morris in Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics, in which she advances the view that this is a “gothic” approach to Victorian society seen through a medieval lens.

Q- On your website, you describe one of your areas of study as the “broader social, artistic, feminist, and cultural contexts for British literature since 1750”. Given your twin expertise of literature and its historical context, then, where do you stand on literature's place in the study of history, and vice versa?

That's a nice question: obviously I'm committed to the belief that they are parts of each other. I hold the view held by Morris and many others, and that he expounded in his essay on “The Lesser Arts,” that historical documents give access to history from the outside without a sense of what it meant to people at the time, and that the latter alone is living history. And as you know, Morris's view was that the lesser arts give us a sense of what people actually thought and valued and felt, and I would argue that literature especially does that, because verbal expressions are keys to such an important part of human consciousness. I don't mean it's not important to look at coins or buildings and so forth, but it's also important to see what people said and sung, for otherwise we wouldn't have any sense of who they were, in a profound sense. The latter is what one wants from history; one wants to have a connection with human beings as they were. It's “existential historicism,” in Frederic Jameson's terms.

But the reverse is also true... I'm teaching every week, I see how if one doesn't have a sense of what the values at the time were, one can't evaluate the characters’ actions or see the meaning of reference—why a particular novel deals with poverty and scarcity, why a specific poem alludes to sexual controversies. Of course human nature may not change, but it does express itself very differently in different social contexts. I see the evidence of a lack of knowledge of history constantly in my classes—I'm like the little boy and the dyke, or St. Columba in the waves, I'm always working against it. I see that people fail to appreciate the motives of the past, and in so doing, they oversimplify their own lives. Students (and others) tend to be judgmental of the past. They really think that we behave better in our gender relationships or politically than our forebears. They tend to simplify how hard it was for people in earlier situations, because they don't even understand those situations or how society has changed. But they also tend to judge both the authors of prose works and poems, and the characters within fiction, because they're simply not able to evaluate what the pressures or circumstances are of those lives.

And so I believe we have to understand other periods of time or we are trapped in our period and our misunderstanding of ourselves. I see all the time how difficult it is even to teach about people who are only a century and a half back, who spoke the same language. There is a kind of collapse of similarity, where one thinks that because one can read Jane Austen's words, that one can understand her world. Grasping something of the class system, the actual social conditions and the health conditions, the extent to which emigration and wars affected the lives of the average person, the ways in which they thought about money, all that, I think enables one to have more sympathy and empathy, but also to recognize the importance of adjusting social conditions so that human beings can have a freer life, or a better life.

Q- Staying in the vein of literary sources and their value as historical documents, Morris's first biographer famously gave readers free reign to read part of The Earthly Paradise as a historical document when he said: “In the verses that frame the stories of The Earthly Paradise there is an autobiography so delicate and so outspoken that it must needs be left to speak for itself …” What do you make of this hidden autobiography, and do you think that Morris was consistent in pouring his personal life into his writing?

It's clear that he did. Biographies agree that this occurred when he wrote the tales of the August, September and October months, "Acontius and Cydippe," "The Death of Paris," and "The Man Who Never Laughed Again", as well as "The Lovers of Gudrun", with that horrible quarrel between Kiartan and Bodli brought on by Gudrun's maliciousness, and the fact that Bodli dies to please a wife who doesn't love him, and then "The Hill of Venus," in which Tannhäuser enters the cave, Venus deserts him, he's left forever with the memory of the cave, and is alienated both from society and from himself. That sense of the compulsiveness—the moral importance, but also the obsessive neediness of love—is clearly Morris's working out of his own emotions about his marriage. He doesn't blame the woman figure but tries to be neutral, and that to him is a moral act. I think that there's more there than just biography in the sense of regretting his situation; there's also his attempt to decide how a person should respond under this type of disappointment, and what may be the meaning of the life-force, to the extent that it is expressed in sexuality or attraction.

And then he solved this problem, as people do as they age, so that by Love is Enough, we have an allegorical version of the same situation. Here although the hero is always seeking, he is always guided by this inner ideal, which to him is associated with fertility, and with life, and with sexuality without guilt or malice or possessiveness, or any of the things that are associated with Puritanism. But I also think, in addition to dealing with inner psychic forces related to love and sexuality, it's an allegory of his own experience of the restless need to accomplish something. Obviously Morris was a driven man in a cheerful sort of way, as many people are who accomplish things of significance. And all his heroes with their quests, their contests, their travels, their slaying of dragons, their crossing of seas and so forth, are always seeking something which they can never quite obtain. That's why it's The Earthly Paradise—it's impossible to obtain an Earthly Paradise—but if the protagonists didn't work at it extremely hard, they wouldn't be what people should be. So, the poem is an allegorical representation of Morris's work ethic, which can seem a very boring thing if you talk of it directly as a work ethic, but if you project it into a whole series of mythological stories and tales, then this gives a meaning to them.

Q- When you were editing Morris's Socialist Diaries, (among many other times), you travelled to Britain and consulted a range of primary sources, including some in private collections. Do you have a favorite moment from that year of research, or a discovery that particularly surprised you?

It was exhilarating to have access to these sources in the late sixties, when I was writing my dissertation. People just didn't travel as much, because it was so expensive, and in particular, I couldn't afford to travel. But also now we do have through digital and other means much better ways of photo-duplication and so it's possible to have greater access to copies and manuscripts. Before my first trip I had looked at everything there was in print on Rossetti, and I had heard of the Morris collection, so when I got my first permanent job here [at Iowa], I applied for and received a tiny fellowship to visit England to see what was there. Nowadays you can look online and see what's in the British Library Manuscript Catalogue. When I walked in the British Library in 1974, I hadn't a clue.

It was just astounding to see how much there was. It was like a whole new world. And at that time my mind was filled with the scholarship of the time, which was very interested in revisions and developmental studies of an author. I had as my great model, Christopher Ricks’s edition of Tennyson, and I would have liked to do something similar for Morris. A really good edition which also presents the textual variants, and provides (as in the case of Tennyson), some things that weren't published along with the things that were, really gives you a sense of the author’s full work. As you can see, not only have I never done that, but the Morris Online Edition which is working away toward that goal will never entirely get there.

But when you first see something, with the happiness of youth you understand what can be learned from it, without understanding perhaps what the obstacles might be. One of the obstacles to using Morris's manuscripts at the time was the enormous cost of reproduction, which is now much less. One had to take them home and look at them in microfilm, and I bought microfilms of almost the whole set. But more important, so many of the manuscripts were in pencil. One really would have to sit there and transcribe them, hour by hour, and even then I find it hard to make sense of some of them. Even a person with reasonably good eyesight still couldn't quite accurately transcribe it all. I've tried; for the Morris edition, I've spent hours and hours transcribing the poems, and when I go back and check them, I find mistakes, or I'll find a transcription by someone else and there will be little differences, so it's not self-evident that someone could readily do a full textual study of Morris's revisions.

I think such a study would be an important work on Morris.  David Latham has written a couple articles on this topic, and I finally got my act together and wrote an article for Victorian Poetry on “The Hill of Venus”. It's not that I hadn't written on "The Hill of Venus"; I had drafted an introduction for the edition of The Earthly Paradise by Taylor and Francis, and had written more generally about it in my book The Design of William Morris’ The Earthly Paradise, but when I actually had to figure out specifically all of the versions, I found ten of them. I think I have dated them accurately, and I think I've put them in the right order—and that was just one poem, though a fairly messy one! Well, I'm saying that the difficulties of coming to a generalization on this mass of manuscript material is somewhat daunting. So even though it's wonderful that it's there—it's a wealth of interesting evidence—very few have the patience, the money, the time, the background, or the will to find all that there is and come to potential conclusions.

And of course its a wonderful thing that there's a great deal to learn, and many many things remain in manuscript. For instance, take Love is Enough. The Huntington Library contains several good and interesting drafts of this, but no one has ever written an article on these. I have a transcription of all these manuscripts, and somewhere it's waiting to be done. I'm hoping with The Morris Online Edition to make more available, in more forms, to more people, the possibility of reaching back into the archive and the manuscripts.

Q- We've talked a little about the Morris Online Edition already, and I wanted to talk more about that. You've done great work on the The Morris Online Edition, making Morris's work available for free online, along with valuable contextualizing documents. Can you talk about that, and about your vision for the future of such electronic resources?

I think Morris’s works have to be gathered in this form. I believe it would be a real loss to Morris's reputation if his writings couldn't be put online, digitalized, and made available free to the world. When you think of all the people that won't have access to research libraries, millions and millions of them, there's an urgency to reaching them. I'd like to see more translations of Morris’s work into non-English and even non-European languages;  on the U. S. Morris Society site, we've tried to provide a very few of them. I can't tell you how accurate a translation the Arabic one is, or the translation into Thai, and whether the meaning really changes as you move to a different language and culture, but I just can't see that we can ignore the world as it is. ….

And obviously we are just at the beginning of a technological revolution, and whether this will be good or bad for humanity in the long run, I wouldn't be the one to say, but to complain would be to be as though someone in the last century regretted that information could be sent by telephone and telegraph as well as letter. It is absolutely necessary to provide something better than Google books, something that presents Morris within a reasonably dignified context, and that provides all of his works, uncommercialized and not chopped up in meaningless ways. Also as I mentioned, I think one of the advantages of a digital edition is that you can put up manuscripts, and these are the items that are so expensive and time consuming to go and see. If what you really want is not just the tourist experience, but actually to read the manuscript, it's extremely useful to have it online. It’s complicated for us to provide images of manuscripts, because it's hard to obtain scans of sufficiently high resolution. We do our best, but I would hope that as time progressed it might be possible for better images to be provided, or to devise better forms of presentation.

However, I think the other part of your question was about the future. The problem with digitalization is that these virtual forms of transmission could all go away, just as the video disks that were being made in the 1980s are obsolete, or—just as the pictures of the 1986 Morris Icelandic trip taken by my friend Gary Aho in 8mm film are now difficult to retrieve—there is the terrifying thought, of which people who think about these things are aware, that methods of preservation might so change that much of what is now digitalized might disappear. … Even people like Jerome McGann, a pioneer and mentor and promoter of these projects, has said that we don't know whether the World Wide Web in its present form will survive, and how long. It's not any more eternal than other forms of transmission. So that's something that one has to keep in mind. The edition materials have to be preserved in different forms, and in such a manner that, when there are new ways of presentation, someone can manage to bridge between formats without waiting too long.

There's nothing like the book; well-made books can last for hundreds of years. Of course, you can throw away a book, a book can be lost in the ocean, or the only copy of the book can be lost, but nonetheless the book was a great means of transmission of data. Someone will have to keep thinking about these things, so that what little we have been able to preserve of our culture will not be lost. The good of the Morris Online Edition, other than the fact that it can provide the relevant material for anyone interested, such as students, is that contributors from different countries can participate. This aspect of the edition has been pleasant for me. We don't have any Australians yet, but Canadian and British scholars as well as Americans have been contributing, which is gratifying.

Q- Well, it's a fantastic project, and I've consulted it myself many times...

Yes, (laughing) I appreciate that.

Q- I thought I'd end on a more personal note for myself, and I'm sure a lot of my readers are curious about this too: it's so tough to get into academia at the moment, especially in the humanities, so I wanted to know what advice you might have for people inclined to academia, but who are just starting their careers now?

Yes, it's a lot easier to come up with an answer on these other things than on something so deeply embedded in our society as the disregard for education. I'm horrified to read that something like 80% of new positions in academics are for adjuncts. It's been a sea-change. It's not that it was ever easy to obtain a job as a university teacher, but the situation has worsened in a dramatic way, because universities are now corporatized in a way that makes them see potential employees as expensive units, and they do not want to hire people to teach. This is tragic for students, because the transmission of culture should be the basic job of a society. Otherwise people will make horrendous mistakes from not knowing about the past, and not caring about it. Look at what we [the U. S.] just did in Baghdad; we blew up some huge historical museum, and we destroyed a whole collection of ancient Buddhist statues. I'm sure officials said, they're not important, yet they happened to be really historic ones, some of the oldest and most important in the world. Anyway, I'd just make the point that these subjects matter for all sorts of reasons, and society has turned away from everything but instrumentalism.
OK so what advice do I have?  I don't have any that differs from what others who have thought about it would give. Obviously one has to be as well-credentialed in conventional ways as possible, and that's very expensive for people now, because of the failure to support public education through low tuition. But I think the people who have managed to gain jobs in some portion of the humanities world have often trained in more than one field. So, for instance, Iowa has an MFA in the book arts; after earning such a degree one won’t necessarily get a job dealing with the book arts, but I think having a degree both in a field such as English or history and in something else— museum studies, the digital humanities (now huge), computer applications to learning— may help, and all these fields do employ people. I notice at Iowa, though faculty positions are few, staff positions continue to increase. So a person who tries to learn more than one skill, and have more than one kind of credentialization, is better placed to survive. This may be somewhat regrettable, because the truth is, if you're credentialed in many ways, maybe you're not able to be as thorough in each one. But I see that people do survive in the humanities still; it just takes longer. I deeply hope that this situation won't continue indefinitely.

Q- Thank you very much, and was there anything that you wanted to add?

Because we're Americans, Morris’s writings can seem somewhat remote. That’s unfortunate, because what he observed of political and social matters could be right from the front page of the newspaper. His ideas on ecology and the environment, and war and the political process are so urgently relevant. I would like to see Morrisians make a bigger educational push to prepare materials for schools—and prepare packages of information that people could read in a simpler form. I teach News from Nowhere using  an online site that a woman named Karla Tonella helped me develop, which contains images of all the places in London mentioned in News to try to make it more accessible. Such  things are fine, but they need to be brought to more people. It's inevitable that even those who are more educated or who belong to the Morris Society are not necessarily placed to present Morris’s work to the public. I know, however, that efforts at explaining his ideas as they have been powerfully expressed will continue to be needed. I find even very clear Victorian English is somewhat remote to my students—Morris’s jokes, little expressions, and allusions all make its content difficult for them. One sees not only in Morris, but in many art movements around the world, that the desire for a better, more equal life, its expression in art, and opposition to extremely capitalist and anti-human practices seem to appear together.

Well, thank you for interviewing me, this has been very pleasant.

Q- Thank you.

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